Scaling Up What Works

–Thoughts for Thursday, 9/3/20, on the “Getting Unstuck – Educators Leading Change” podcast

I confess. I’ve been binge-watching a Netflix series titled Last Chance U. It’s the story of the players, coaches, and support staff of a junior college football team in a nearly shuttered, end-of-the-road-town in Eastern Mississippi – a team that just happens to be perennial national champions in their division.

It was the title that drew me in. Most of the players were high-school superstars who were recruited to Division 1 football teams – the stepping-stones to the NFL. Somehow they managed to go astray at their respective university or college – drugs, poor academics, petty crimes – and were kicked out. Eastern Mississippi Community College and its football program are now their last best hope.

The show is structured as the classic heroes’ journey:

The Departure Act: The (former high-school) Hero leaves the Ordinary World (Division 1 football)

The Initiation Act: The Hero ventures into unknown territory (Eastern Mississippi football) and faces various trials and challenges standing in the way of re-birth (their irascible head coach to name one)

The Return Act: The Hero returns in triumph (Fingers crossed, maybe, back to Division 1)

You can’t help but pull for these kids. Many come from broken homes, poverty, and abuse, and they’re right on the edge of making it. Or stumbling again. Football is their ticket away from life’s trauma and toward the light of a positive future. If they succeed, is it because of or in spite of the head coach’s rants?

So I found it interesting as I emerged from Season 2 that the two most consistent sounds I heard from the coaches were anything but positive: their omnipresent screeching whistles and the word “NO!,” which was usually laced with highly descriptive expletives. Between-game practices were a dystopian mix of punishing, repeat-it-until-you-get-it-right drills, drenching sweat, and pounding, individually focused criticism.

I get it. Film directors have to showcase conflict because, without conflict, there is no hero for us to cheer for – no hero to finally make it. And most audiences will generally get bored watching even one hour of just “happy.”

That said, the program also reminded me of our penchant in organizations to want to fix people and rid them of their “weaknesses.” “Areas for improvement” often get as much attention in performance reviews as accomplishments. The underlying assumption seems to be that we can all be good at all things. If you manage or collaborate with people, and you’re curious about focusing on people’s strengths, check out this book.

Which brings me to this week’s “Getting Unstuck – Educators Leading Change” podcast guest, Professor John Hattie. John has waded through thousands of research studies involving millions of kids and found that of all activities that influence student success, two have the most impact. Two!

No spoiler alert here, folks. If you want to know which two activities make the most difference, join us for the full conversation.

But the other point that John talks about here is our tendency in education to figuratively blow whistles, shout “NO!” and try to fix all problems, large and small.

If you’re in business, from day one, you worry about scaling up success. In education, we’re the opposite. We try and find problems – usually problems we think people have – and then fix them. Instead, we should recognize the excellence that’s already there, and scale it up.

Sounds like EMCC football, yes? It’s not that we don’t have room for growth, but it’s incredibly rare for us to focus and scale up on what we do well in education.

And we do many things well – two especially. Nope, I’m not going to tell you what they are, but here’s a hint. The legendary and highly successful UCLA college basketball, John Wooden, had a book written about his teaching principles and practices: You Haven’t Taught Until They Have Learned.

Thanks for reading and listening.


Jeff Ikler
Jeff Ikler
The river that runs through my career lives – as teacher, publisher, coach, podcaster and author – is helping individuals acquire knowledge, skills, and self-awareness so they can better achieve their desired results and impact. • As Director of Quetico Leadership and Career Coaching, I work with individuals and leaders to overcome obstacles and make sustained changes in their behavior. • I co-host the podcast “Getting Unstuck – Shift for Impact,” where I bring to light inspirational stories of transformation in the field of education. • I am the co-author of the soon-to-be-published book for school educators, Shifting: How Educational Leaders Can Create a Culture of Change.

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  1. Well, once again, Kimberly, you made my day, week and year. Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

    I do a write up like this one every Thursday on LinkedIn, but this was the first time I posted it on BC360. Not too many people read in on LinkedIn because it’s an article, not just a simple post and ultimately it’s a lead-in to a podcast about education. People have to be selective about what they read; I get that. I’m the same way. But the number isn’t important anymore. I enjoy connecting the dots between two things that initially have no relation to each other. Thank you for seeing that. And I LOVE that you brought up our podcast. Hurrah!

    Ah, the two things. They are truly fascinating, and as John indicates in the interview, few teachers do them, I think, because they are pressed to cover so much content. The two things require teachers to slow waaaaay down and do analysis, and the school year and list of standards to cover are working against them.

    Thank you again, dear friend.

  2. I think one of the many, many, many things I love about you, Jeff, is that you’re a dot-connector. As a fellow dot-connector, it’s something I appreciate when I see it in action. I experienced this when we did our podcast, how you took my work, connected the dots to Patrick Lencioni’s work, and then we went on our marry dot-connecting way during our conversation. I’ve watched you do the same over and over and over again – as you do here. Looking for common threads, universal truths, bridging those truths for deeper understanding. This is really lovely and I look forward to listening to this conversation (dying to know the two things!)